Thieves' Highway

Richard Conte and Valentina Cortese in Thieves' Highway (dir. Jules Dassin, 1949).

Conte and Cortese in the noir-drenched streets of San Francisco.

Millard Mitchell, Jack Oakie, and Joseph Pevney.

I heart Jules Dassin. Thieves' Highway is the simplest of stories, adapted for the screen by A. I. "Buzz" Bezzerides from his novel Thieves' Market: gritty working folk race from the orchards of Fresno to the San Francisco produce markets with the year's first crop of golden delicious apples (never mind that in the parallel-dimension California of the story, this trip takes thirty-six hours). Crooked fruit merchant Lee J. Cobb makes life tough for Richard Conte and his fellow truckers, alternately aided and defied by whore-with-a-heart-of-you-know-what Valentina Cortese (one of the loves of Dassin's life). When Cortese plays tic-tac-toe on Conte's bare chest with her fingertips, it's as sensually frank as anything in European cinema of the period: she's like a minor carnal deity, and she blows Conte's stuck-up little priss of a fiancee (Barbara Lawrence) out of the water without even trying. All this creates the problem of how eventually to justify her relationship with Conte in a way that will satisfy the Breen Code, and the solution is naturally ridiculous: she's not actually a hooker, she's just a fortune teller. Right. This and the film's other brief concession to Breen--a scene where a policeman mildly admonishes Conte for taking the law into his own hands--were both tacked on by Fox producer Darryl Zanuck behind Dassin's back.

Millard Mitchell plays Conte's partner, and he's an absolutely compelling character, at once plain and complex, neither strong nor weak--just a man. There's nothing to him but realism. His truck goes out of control on the Altamont, and in the aftermath, hundreds of golden delicious apples cascade down the hill in the distance toward the foreground, little white specks of chaos. Jack Oakie and Joseph Pevney stand by as witnesses, bewildered by the destructiveness of the universe and their own lives. During the shooting of this scene, Dassin told Pevney to zip up his jacket against the cold--a small, spontaneous moment that is essential to the mood of the moment, just as it is when Oakie looks at the apple that has somehow ended up in his hand, blinks in confusion, and throws it aside.


Steve-O said...

I like your review of Thieves Highway. Would you be interested in writing a Noir of the Week on it? (expanded to around 900 words). I actually wrote a piece on the same film but it got lost during a computer transfer.

Keep up the great work!


phaneronoemikon said...

This one was really interesting.
I didn't see the fiancee thing coming, and thought it was kind of
odd. Good Review Kasey!

K. Silem Mohammad said...


Thanks, I'd love to. How shall I get it to you?


shahn said...

nice screen caps! this is a great film, not just 'cause of my prediliction for SF movies.
i'll be back to check through your film stills in the archives.